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The Incas: Definition, History, Religion & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the ancient South American culture of the Incas, whose empire spread across the continent, and test your knowledge of their religion and art as well as their dramatic rise and fall.

More than Just Llamas

High up in the Andes of South America, you will find llamas. Also guinea pigs. While both are adorable, you may find something else as well, ruins from one of the world's greatest ancient civilizations, the Incas.

The Incas domesticated llamas
The Incas domesticated llamas

The Incas were a civilization who lived in the South American Andes, roughly modern Peru, from the early 13th century to 1572. They expanded to create the largest empire in the history of the pre-Columbian Americas and filled their land with incredible art, strong architecture, and a complex political and religious culture.

History of the Incan Empire

The Inca people began as small herders in the highlands of Peru. Around the 12th century, a powerful leader named Manco Cápac, who was remembered by Incan culture as a god, founded a small city-state called Cusco. Many years later, in 1438, the new leader, named Pachacuti, began expanding the power of Cusco and taking control of nearby tribes and people. (The Incan leader was referred to as the Sapa Inca.) Thus, the Incan Empire was born. Pachacuti reorganized the city-state into an empire, with Cusco as the capital, and divided the empire into four areas to be managed by four administrators under his supervision.

Modern-day Cusco
Modern-day Cusco

Pachacuti expanded the Incan Empire by offering foreign leaders gifts, positions in his government, and the protection of his army. Many leaders accepted these offers and turned their lands over to the Incas willingly. The children of these leaders were sent to Cusco to learn Incan culture and then returned home as administrators for the empire. The areas that did not accept Pachacuti's offer were taken by military force. Pachacuti's son, Túpac Inca, expanded the empire into Ecuador and Colombia. His son, Huayna Cápac, added more land. At its height, the Incan Empire controlled land in modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

The Incan city Machu Picchu, in Peru
The Incan city Machu Picchu

Around 1530, two of Huayna Cápac's sons, Huáscar and Atahualpa, started a war against each other that weakened the empire. This, coupled with the arrival of smallpox, meant that the Incan Empire was not at its best when the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 to conquer the area. Spanish law required Pizarro to meet with the Sapa Inca and attempt to convert him to Christianity by reading a script called the Requerimiento before going to war. Atahualpa met with Pizarro, but only brought a small number of soldiers because he never considered the small group of Spaniards to be a threat. Pizarro surprised the Sapa Inca and captured him.

Atahualpa paid a ransom of gold that was enough to fill a room, but Pizarro refused to release him and had Huáscar hunted down and murdered. In 1533, they executed Atahualpa and installed his brother Manco as the Sapa Inca. Manco soon turned against the Spanish and retook Cusco in 1536, but was later forced to flee to Vilcabamba, Peru, where he and his children fought the Spanish for another 36 years. Finally, Manco's son and the last Sapa Inca, Túpac Amaru, was captured by the Spanish and executed. Incan culture was destroyed by the Spanish, although the Incan language, Quechua, is still spoken in the Andes today.

Religion and Architecture

The Incas practiced a polytheistic religion, meaning they had multiple gods, and believed that the Sapa Inca was the heir of a god and therefore a god as well. Just as the Sapa Inca was divine, Cusco was considered to be the center of the universe and a spiritually sacred place. The Incas practiced human sacrifices to accompany important occasions, usually around the death of a Sapa Inca or other important person. They believed in an afterlife, but also that the dead could directly interact with them on special, sacred days of the year. This tradition lead to deep devotion to ancestors, and on these days the mummified bodies of dead Sapa Incas would be dressed in the finest clothes and seated on thrones inside the palace in Cusco.

Incan art included lots of weaving, and lots of gold. However, architecture was the highest form of Incan art. The Incan Empire was centered on mountaintops, which were sacred, and the Incas created huge palaces of stones built precariously on the edges of the mountains. Their stonework was so precise that they never used any sort of mortar to hold the stones together; not even a knife blade could fit in between the stones of their buildings. The most famous example of their architecture is the city of Machu Picchu, likely built as a vacation home for Pachacuti.

Incan stonework was nearly perfect
Incan stonework was nearly perfect

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